Boost your immune system: supplements, herbs, vitamins to treat colds–and the evidence behind them

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Many people use nutritional supplements, herbs, vitamins to try to boost immunity and ward off colds.  It is only natural (pun intended) since we don’t have a cure for the annoying and frequent set of viruses that cause colds.

A few days back, I wrote about some general tried and true methods to increase your immunity that have good studies to back them up and don’t cost money.   They should be your base for protection.  Only implement other methods after you have put the base in place.

Good, reliable studies of herbs, vitamins and supplements that prove efficacy and safety are harder to find.  Although many people swear by their home remedy, the mainstream medical world has not taken these seriously, in the past.  We are now trying to catch up but have a long way to go.

The reason I reneged on my promise to post this information, on boosting your immune system with herbs, supplements and vitamins on yesterday, was I wanted to wait on access to the information at, where they utilize a group of medical experts and scientists to review all of the reliable data we have on alternative medicines.  Their mission is ”to provide objective, reliable information that aids clinicians, patients, and healthcare institutions to make more informed and safer therapeutic decisions.”

Here is what they say about specific supplements, herbs and vitamins fighting the common cold.

  • Andrographis (Kan Jang)
    I had never heard of this one until I read, at Natural Standards, it was one of the most proven herbs to decrease the symptoms of a cold.  It also may be effective against the flu symptoms.  Key points are:
    - Take it within 36-48 hours of onset of symptoms.
    - There have been three known instances of severe allergic reactions; otherwise, it is relatively safe.
    - There is limited research on treating children.
    - It may interact with blood pressure, diabetic, blood thinner or anti-inflammatory medicines.
    - Don’t take if you may be pregnant.
  • Vitamin C
    Although there were over 30 studies cited, the consensus is no evidence that Vitamin C prevents or treats the common cold.
  • Echinacea
    Mixed studies show it might help decrease symptoms in adults and kids, but does not prevent colds.
    - It has been known to cause allergic reactions, aggravate asthma.  It may cause a rash in kids.
  • Zinc
    - Conflicting views again.  It may be helpful in some cold rhinoviruses and not in others.  Not sure of   effective dose.
    - Nasal zinc has been suspected to cause a loss of the sense of smell in some people.

One big problem with commercial supplements is you don’t always know what you are getting.  Dangerous contaminants have been found in some.  According to the Natural Standards, one study examined 59 echinacea preparations and found 10 percent contained no echinacea at all.  Of the 21 that were supposed to had a “standardized” dose, only 43 percent actually had the dose on the label.

I have only scratched the surface on treating colds. If you decide to take a supplement or herb, always check with your doctor if you are taking medications, have a chronic illness or could be pregnant.  At the least, learn extensively of the interactions and side effects.

Bottom line.  Andrographis may be your best bet for colds.  Elderberry has been shown to decrease flu symptoms.  Chicken soup helps the symptoms of a cold.

My wife has a secret recipe to prevent or treat what ails you.  The family swears by it.  What has been your experience?  Do you have a “cure” to share?

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15 Responses to “Boost your immune system: supplements, herbs, vitamins to treat colds–and the evidence behind them”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    Excellent review!!

    I take a daily vitamin C supplement. I don’t get colds very often, and when I do they are mild. I don’t know if the C makes any difference. I do like Linus Pauling, however, and so far, vit. C hasn’t been shown to cause any harm that I know of.

    Dr. Js last blog post..Nibbles for kids: Not enough obesity diagnoses, gastric bypass and diabetes and another danger of skipping breakfast

  2. cathy Says:

    Secret recipe? Maybe she would share – in the name of science, of course. :-) I’ve never heard of andographis – will have to look into that one more. I’ve taken zinc in the past, but I’m always a little leery of taking herbal supplements – for the reasons that you listed in the article. I’m certain that some have merits, but I always wonder what I’m putting in my body and if it really does any good. For now, I’ll stick with more oranges!

    cathys last blog post..Snack time!

  3. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    I say whatever works, Dr. J, as long as it does not harm you. I wonder if some of it is the power of placebo.

  4. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Cathy, I eat an orange a day. I was surprised about the andographis also.

  5. Tom Rooney Says:

    I’m the apple a day person. I find that I have very few cold. I do get a flu shot each year and have no ill effects (pun intended here too). I think things are better now that I’ve concentrated on more fruits and vegetables in my diet and less “junk food”.

    Tom Rooneys last blog post..Secrets of a Successful Weight Loss Diet

  6. FatFighterTV Says:

    Okay, I know Airborne settled a lawsuit about its claims, but I swear, it works for me! So, I guess I will keep taking it, even if it’s just the placebo effect.

    FatFighterTVs last blog post..Watch yourself lose weight now!

  7. Liz S Says:

    Interesting list. You should also include Zicam, which has been proven in clinical studies to reduce the duration of the common cold. Perhaps more effective than zinc supplements.

    Also, interesting chinese formulations but they shouldn’t be used without guidance from a certified expert.


  8. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Good for you, Tom.
    Fruits and vegetables give you the best combo of vitamins.

  9. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    FightFighter, don’t mess with what works. Many people love Airborne. The placebo effect is as real as anything else.

  10. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Liz S for the info:

    Just remember nasal zinc and possible link to decreased smell. Also, I think some of those chinese preparations are the ones that have been found to have contaminants, so find a reliable source.

  11. Sagan Says:

    I don’t think I’d really know where to start with supplements and such (although this is some good starter info you’ve provided!). I tend to just try to eat well and hope that the cold goes away.

    Sagans last blog post..Welcome all!

  12. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Sagan, I really think what helps my immunity best is regular exercise. You are right, colds are temporary.

  13. Judy Rodman Says:

    I’m with the Airborne converts… I swear it helps me and my vocal students! Weird that they have had such negative results in tests.

    I also do something at the onset of what feels like a cold… I soak in a hot bath with epsom salts. I think I’m creating an artificial fever and the epsom salts seem to draw out toxins. Or maybe I just think this happens :) but the effect seems to be helpful if I catch it soon enough. I also stop eating and start drinking a lot of fluids, and try to catch up on sleep.

    Judy Rodmans last blog post..Pre-production for recording projects

  14. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Judy. Others love Airborne also.
    As far as the hot bath, steam is a frequently recommended cure. Studies have been unable to show it shortens the course, but it can sure make you feel better.

  15. Colloidal Silver Says:

    Great post, you are correct about commercial supplements, it is difficult to decipher what the product contains. I have been taking natural supplements for years now and have found them to be very beneficial and have increased my immune system greatly.

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